Stuff My Uncle Told Me

More than a year ago already, my uncle Rodney died of cancer. He never had a family of his own, living with his parents until he died–which is probably why he would call me like clockwork every two weeks. The phone would ring in my office. I would check the number, notice the area code and brace myself for the voice on the other end. “Hello?” I would say, knowing full well who was calling. “What the h*ll’s going on? Do any f***ing work today?” That’s how he would start every conversation– with vulgarity and the accusation of not having a real job. Of course I realized very early that this was his way of saying he loved me, so I went with it. We would talk about all the Minnesota sports teams and then the conversation would be over. Two weeks later he would call again. It’s strange the things we miss when someone dies. For the longest time the phone would ring in my office and I would quickly check the area code, hoping to hear an F-bomb questioning my work ethic.

Uncle Rodney had a tough life. As a teenager he underwent a kidney transplant, and for the rest of his life took medication that both saved him and most likely killed him. He dealt with recurring bouts of skin cancer, knee replacements, and spent a good part of his life caring for his aging parents. Even the day of his funeral was complicated by a snowstorm, which meant that many people, I included, couldn’t make it. Given all the things in his life that didn’t go his way, I never heard him complain. Instead, it seems he focused his attention on making sure his nephew toughened up. It was his mission from God and he took it seriously. His mantra was “Don’t be such a crybaby!” Whether it was my complaining that he threw the football too hard, or my being upset because some kids were making fun of me, the advice was the same.

Deep down I knew he was proud of the things I’ve accomplished. He would always send my kids Halloween cards and Christmas presents. He even got excited when I told him I would be going back to school to work on a Ph.D. But he also worked hard to keep me grounded, to remind me of where I came from. He would email me scanned pictures of my grandpa and grandma when they were first married, along with photos of my dad as a little kid. It was his way of reminding me that no matter what I did, or where I went, my last name was Lief.

On the surface it could be said that Uncle Rodney’s life didn’t amount to very much. Yet there are very few people who have left a larger imprint upon my identity. I love to tell people stories about Uncle Rodney. Most of the time they think I’m making it up. With these stories I have brought the rowdiest of high school classrooms to silent attentiveness, and caused an auditorium full of college students to laugh. And in the process of telling and retelling them I’m reminded of how deeply intertwined my life is with the characters and experiences these stories tell.

Every day when I walk the hill towards the campus of Luther Seminary in St. Paul I’m reminded of my Uncle Rodney. From the northwest corner of campus I can see downtown Minneapolis, and the now deflated Metrodome (home of the Minnesota Vikings and former home of the Minnesota Twins). It still prompts this uncontrollable impulse to give Rodney a call. From him I learned some of life’s most important lessons–to remember where we come from, not to think too highly of ourselves, and never to take ourselves too seriously. I thank God for his life.

Jason Lief is a member of the theology faculty of Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, currently doing doctoral studies at Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.